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Attending the Tucson Gem Show : Insider Tips

Every year, Tucson, Arizona is the destination for companies from all over the world who deal in gemstones, jewelry, minerals, fossils, beads, and everything else related.  Approximately 4,000 vendors set up shop in over 40 different venues all over the city, and they eagerly await the arrival of buyers, gemologists, researchers, miners, and tourists.  Because of the size and scope of this event, it is probably most appropriate to refer to it as the “Tucson Gem, Mineral, and Fossil Showcase.” But for years, it has been fondly referred to as simply the “Tucson Gem Show” by most vendors and attendees, and that is how it will be referred to for the remainder of this article. 

For many, the Tucson Gem Show is an annual tradition. It’s an opportunity to visit with friends and colleagues to share knowledge and experiences, new discoveries, and newly acquired treasures. The event takes place for about three weeks in late January and early February, which is typically a great time to visit Tucson.  The weather is usually very mild with sunny days and high temperatures in the upper sixties.  If you have always wanted to attend the show but had no idea how to get there or what to do, this is the perfect article for you! 

Amethyst geode sculpture
This gorgeous butterfly sculpture was created with amethyst geode wings. Large items like this one can be shipped to your home from the Tucson Gem Show.

THE TUCSON GEM SHOW IS MADE UP OF MANY SHOWS

The Tucson Gem Show is not just one big show. It consists of many shows all over the city that open and close at different times during the three-week period. When planning your trip, do some research in advance and think about which shows are of interest to you. Do you have the credentials to get into them? Some shows are wholesale only, and unless you are conducting business in gemstones, minerals, jewelry, or a related trade, you may not have the credentials to get into those shows. Simply providing an EIN will not work. No worries, though. There are several shows that are open to the general public. It’s just best to know which ones you can get into, and the dates and times that they will be open, before you start making your travel arrangements. One of the best websites we have found for this information is Tucson Gem Show 101. They do an excellent job of maintaining a list of the shows with dates, addresses and links to individual websites for registration. You can reach their site here: https://tucsongemshow101.com/

Make a list of the shows that you really want to attend. Keep in mind, you could visit the Tucson Gem Show every single day for three weeks and still not see everything. So, try to limit your list to something that is manageable in the time that you will have. The major shows all have their own websites where you can get specific information and check the attendance requirements.  

For those of you who will be coming to the Tucson Gem Show as a wholesale buyer, many of the shows offer preregistration on their websites for your convenience. The deadline is usually December 31st.

Tucson Gem Show hotel venue
Hotels are popular Tucson Gem Show venues, where vendors display products in individual rooms, under tents, or outside on tables.
Mineral specimens in showcase
Collectors can find rare and beautiful mineral specimens on display at the Tucson Gem Show.

CHOOSING YOUR HOTEL FOR THE TUCSON GEM SHOW

Convenience and personal preference are going to be the biggest factors when deciding where to stay during the Tucson Gem Show. You could choose a hotel that is a show venue, one that is centrally located between shows, or one that is more remote. There are pluses and minuses to all of them. If you book your stay at a hotel that is a show venue, your location might be on the official Tucson Gem Show shuttle route. More information about the shuttle service is mentioned in the transportation section of this article.    

The downside of booking a hotel that is a show venue is that the parking lot, restaurants, elevators and hallways will be more crowded than usual, and noise can accompany the crowds.

After you choose your hotel for the Tucson Gem Show, book your stay as soon as you know your travel dates. The hotels fill up fast! Most hotels don’t require any money up front, but some of them do require a deposit. The hotels will hold your reservation with a debit or credit card.  If you need to cancel your reservation for any reason, make sure to do so at least one week prior to your check-in date, and you will most likely not be charged a penalty. Polices do vary though, so be sure to confirm the cancellation requirements directly with the hotel that you select.    

Of course, there are other lodging alternatives like renting a house or staying in a campground, so just go with what works best for you.   

Tucson International Airport
The Tucson International Airport is the most convenient destination, when flying in for the Tucson Gem Show.

FLYING TO THE TUCSON GEM SHOW

Unless you are fortunate enough to live near Tucson, or you will be arriving by car or bus, you will be flying to the Tucson Gem Show. Book your flight as soon as possible, preferably at least 2-3 months in advance, but the earlier the better if you want to get a good fare and your first choice of seating.  The most convenient airport to fly into will be the Tucson International Airport, but if you don’t mind the two-hour drive, flying into Phoenix, Arizona is a good alternative. Keep in mind, the Tucson Gem Show is the largest of its kind in the world, and people from many different countries will be traveling to Tucson to either buy or sell. Even if you are confident that you will be able to get a flight out of your local airport, the connecting flights into Tucson may be sold out. Also, weather delays are always possible when flying during winter months. If you’re booking a flight that will require changing planes at one of the major hubs, an extended layover could help prevent a missed connection.

Make sure that you select seats at the time of your booking or soon after. Your airline might overbook the flights to compensate for “no-shows,” and if you don’t have a seat assignment prior to arriving at the airport, you could get bumped from the flight or end up sitting in a middle seat for hours.

Canvas totes are complimentary at some of the larger shows, but you might want to bring one with you. If you’re planning to do a lot of buying at the Tucson Gem Show, you may also want to bring along an extra piece of luggage to put your goodies in for the trip home.  Just be aware, though, that on your return trip back home, you might be pulled out of line at the airport so that your carry-on luggage can be inspected. Big rocks are just big solid lumps on an X-ray. Even though the Tucson airport security team is used to seeing a lot of rocks, they don’t take chances on larger pieces.  Depending upon the day you will be flying home, the Tucson airport may be a “zoo,” so get there early and be prepared to stand in some long lines. 

Shipping items from the Tucson Gem Show to your home or business is another option, depending upon their size and weight, and the cost involved. Companies like UPS have representatives stationed at the various shows. They can pack and ship items for you. Your vendor may also be willing to ship your purchases, especially if they are very large and require crating or shipping on a pallet. For smaller items, the US Postal Service has multiple locations in Tucson. If you decide to pack and ship your own items, use a lot of packing material and double box fragile items. Also, don’t forget to use “fragile” stickers or write “fragile” on multiple side of the boxes. If you pay for insurance on the contents of your boxes and something is damaged in transit, the postal service will keep the damaged items if you file a claim.

Agate lamp
Agate lamps are among the many popular home décor items available at the Tucson Gem Show. They are beautiful, but fragile, and may require extra packaging material to prevent damage in during shipping.
Amethyst and citrine geodes
Some large geodes and crystals are left partially crated at the Tucson Gem show, in anticipation of shipment to new owners.

WHAT TO WEAR TO THE TUCSON GEM SHOW

Comfortable shoes should be at the top of the list, because you will be walking a lot. Depending upon what shows you will visit, your shoes may be quite dusty by the end of the day. There are designated handicapped parking spots available at the major shows, and most areas are wheelchair accessible.

As mentioned earlier in this article, the weather is usually very mild during the Tucson Gem Show, with low temperatures in the 40’s and highs in the 60’s or 70’s, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared. On rare occasions, temperatures have dipped drastically lower than normal and caused fountains to freeze and pipes to burst, but that is more the exception than the norm. To be safe, check the weather forecast before you go, and consider bringing along some clothing that you can layer for cooler evenings. Also, the Tucson Gem Show takes place in the desert, so don’t forget to pack a hat and sunglasses. You will need them when walking through the outdoor venues,

Dress for comfort, but keep in mind that shows are business environments where trade is being conducted. Business casual attire is fine for most venues. Some shows specify “professional attire” in their attendance rules. It is not uncommon to see blazers or other jackets with jeans, or oxford and button-down shirts with khaki pants. A nicer T-shirt is okay if you are going to be outside for most of the day. Some shows are in tents with gravel lots or have displays out in the open. They tend to be more casual. Also, it occasionally rains in the desert, so a compact umbrella or rain poncho might come in handy.    

Clothing and Accessories
The weather is typically mild during the Tucson Gem Show, but it doesn’t hurt to be prepared with a variety of clothing that will allow for layering. The “Crystals Rock” shirt that is shown in the photo is available in several colors in our Gem Geek® store!

BRING SOME CASH TO THE TUCSON GEM SHOW

Most vendors at the Tucson Gem Show will accept major credit and debit cards, but paying with cash may get you a better price. There are a few vendors that will only transact in cash. For wholesale customers, vendors will sometimes accept a company check. Regardless of whether you decide to use your cards for purchases at the shows, if you are just planning to use them for travel expenses, it’s a good idea to contact your financial institution prior to leaving town and ask them to add a travel notice to your file. This may prevent them from putting a hold on your card for charges they deem suspicious. 

Quartz Cluster
A large quartz cluster displayed at the Tucson Gem Show, complete with custom stand and a $20,000 price tag

TRANSPORTATION AT THE TUCSON GEM SHOW

For the freedom to set your own schedule and make the most of your time in Tucson, renting a car is highly recommended. Most of the major rental car companies have a desk at the airport. The Tucson Gem Show draws thousands of people to town, so it’s a good idea to have a reservation. Depending upon the day you arrive, you may be waiting in line for a while to pick up your car.  

A credit card is required by almost all the major rental car companies, but there are one or two that will let you use a debit card, with your permission to put a hold on your funds. Some companies will let you prepay for your rental in advance, in return for a discounted rate. This is a great option if your travel plans are relatively firm. Always be sure to double check the payment and identification requirements for your reservation at the time you book it, to avoid potential problems when you arrive in Tucson.

Besides being a time saver, having a rental car will give you the ability to run errands, like picking up some water or snacks at the grocery store or taking packages to the post office. It will also give you the opportunity to experience areas outside of the shows. One of those areas is mentioned later in this article, and it is a “must see.”

Even if you do rent a car, you could still take advantage of the official Tucson Gem Show shuttle service, operated by GemRide. This is a free service, operated by the city of Tucson during the Tucson Gem Show. You may choose to leave your car in a parking garage or at an official shuttle hub, and then take the shuttle to various shows. This will eliminate the need to navigate traffic and pay for parking at each show. Keep in mind that the free shuttle picks up and drops off at most show locations, but not all of them, so it’s a good idea to study the published shuttle routes and schedule carefully. The pickup and drop off times will vary by location, and the routes change from year to year.  

If you need to get somewhere quickly and don’t want to wait for a shuttle, or if you want to go to a show that is not a designated shuttle stop, using a taxi or another car service is another option.  

GemRide Shuttle Map
Free shuttle service is offered by the city of Tucson for attendees of the Tucson Gem Show. It is operated by GemRide. Route information and pick-up locations can be found in several of the show guides.

TUCSON GEM SHOW PARKING

As mentioned earlier, you can park your car in a public garage or parking area and take the free GemRide shuttle to various show locations. If you are going to be driving yourself to each show you will find available parking at or near all locations. Some shows offer free parking, but others may charge from $5 to $20 or more per day. With some planning, you might be able to get a space in a lot that is centrally located between two or three shows that are withing walking distance of each other. In this case you can just park your car for the day and visit multiple shows. Be very careful about parking on the street or in areas other than those designated for show parking. During the Tucson Gem Show, tickets and towing fees provide a nice bump in revenue for the city.

THE TUCSON GEM SHOW IS NOT FOR SMALL CHILDREN OR PETS

As mentioned earlier, the Tucson Gem Show is an industry trade show. Vendors who exhibit at the shows are there to conduct business, first and foremost, so it is best to leave your pets and small children at home. Some of the outdoor venues allow dogs on a leash, but other large wholesale shows specifically prohibit children under the age of 14 and do not allow pets of any kind. Introducing animals and small children into an environment with hundreds of beautiful, expensive, sparkly things on tables can be a recipe for disaster, and these rules were made to protect everyone involved. If in doubt, always review the show guidelines in advance.

Crystals on custom stands
Natural crystals on custom stands are becoming increasingly popular for home décor. They sell out very early during the Tucson Gem Show.

CAMERAS AND FILMING ETIQUETTE WHILE AT THE TUCSON GEM SHOW

Everyone who has a cell phone has a camera in their hand, and when there are so many amazing things to see in one place, it’s easy to get caught up in the moment and want to take pictures. However, please be respectful of show rules.  Many of the Tucson Gem Show venues will state in their show policies that cameras and filming of any kind are strictly prohibited. They will also post signs at entrances stating that cameras are not allowed.  They do this for several reasons, and security is a big one. It’s usually okay to take photos and videos of outdoor displays, and if you are working with a dealer and ask permission to take photos, they will probably be okay with it. Just don’t assume that everyone will react in the same way. It’s better to be safe than sorry and not run the risk of being kicked out of a show.

Aquamarine and rhodochrosite
A huge, faceted aquamarine with rough and two faceted rhodochrosites are discussed with a vendor at the Tucson Gem Show. This photo was taken with the vendor’s permission.

BRING SOMETHING THAT ROLLS FOR HEAVY TUCSON SHOW TREASURES

Let’s face it – rocks and minerals are heavy. Even the small ones add up. The Tucson Gem Show offers an abundance of big, beautiful pieces for sale. If carrying around a 15-pound piece of polychrome jasper or a large amethyst geode all day isn’t your idea of a good time, then you might want to consider using a collapsible wagon, a roll aboard suitcase, or something else with wheels to haul your special treasures around. Most of the shows are set up on concrete or asphalt, but a few of them do have gravel lots. Be be sure to check out the location of your venue before you go.

Wearing a backpack or carrying a canvas tote are also options for storing your purchases while you shop, but they might get heavy as the day progresses. If possible, take larger purchases back to your car and unload some of the weight, to make shopping much more pleasant.   

Large crystals and geodes
Large crystals and geodes in an outdoor display at the Tucson Gem Show

GATES PASS – A “MUST SEE” PLACE NEAR THE TUCSON GEM SHOW

If you love scenic views and incredible sunsets, then Gates Pass is a “must see” while you are in Tucson. This is a favorite spot for locals to visit and spending some time here will provide you with a nice little break from shopping the Tucson Gem Show. The area was named after Thomas Gates, who was a local rancher, saloon keeper and miner in the 1800’s. Mr. Gates wanted a shortcut through the Tucson Mountains, and when he couldn’t get money from the local government to build it, he funded the project himself.

Gates pass is just a short drive from downtown Tucson and well worth taking the time to visit. The road through the pass winds around for 3 miles through mountains covered with majestic Saguaro cactus. There are pull-off areas along the way where you can stop and walk out into the desert to take some photos or enjoy a quick hike. Several overlooks provide amazing photo opportunities, as well. The mountains that you will see on the way, are on the edge of the Saguaro West National Park. There is a parking lot at the top of the pass. Don’t be surprised if a short walk into the desert makes you feel as if you have been magically transported back in time and plopped into the middle of an old western movie. The feeling is surreal.

If you continue traveling on this route, it will take you to the Arizona-Senora Desert Museum, which is one of the most visited attractions in southern Arizona.

Unless you are planning to spend most of the day in the desert, the best time to go to Gates Pass is just before dusk to see the gorgeous sunsets, followed by panoramic views of the Tucson city lights on the drive back into town.

Gates Pass
Gates Pass is a short drive from the Tucson Gem Show. It’s a great place to take a break from shopping and enjoy the local scenery.
Tucson, AZ desert sunset
Gates Pass is well-known for incredible sunsets, making it a favorite destination for local residents and attendees of the Tucson Gem Show.

10 ADDITIONAL TIPS FOR SHOPPING AT THE TUCSON GEM SHOW

Tip#1 When you arrive in Tucson, make sure to pick up copies of the show guides that are published specifically for the Tucson Gem Show. There are usually two or three different ones that have information about all of the shows, and then some of the larger shows publish their own. You will find these show guides in racks at the airport, near rental car counters, in hotel lobbies and at show entrances. These guides are a treasure trove of useful information, and they may help you locate a specific gem or mineral and find your favorite vendor.

Tucson Gem Show guides
Tucson Gem Show Guides can be found in multiple places, including show entrances and racks at the airport and in hotel lobbies. They contain very helpful information, such as maps, shuttle schedules, and vendor lists with product specialties.

Tip#2 Be respectful. If there is a sign on something that says, “don’t touch,” then please don’t touch it.  Many items at the Tucson Gem Show are very rare and delicate, and they may already be sold and awaiting pick-up or shipment to the new owner.  

Mineral specimen with sign
Sometimes, items on display at the Tucson Gem Show will be labeled with signs stating, “Don’t touch.” or “Please don’t sit.” These pieces may either be prone to damage or have been sold and are awaiting pickup or shipment to the new owner.

Tip#3 Don’t expect to see price tags on everything. Many pieces are priced and sold by weight (usually in grams or kilograms) and scales are often provided to allow you to weigh items and calculate the prices yourself. Just for reference, there are approximate 5 carats in a gram. If you’re having trouble figuring out a price, ask the dealer for help. 

If you happen to be in Tucson during the last few days of the shows, you might be able to negotiate a lower price for an item. It takes a lot of money and effort for vendors to bring items to the Tucson show, and they may or may not want to pay to ship them home. Please be mindful of cultural differences, because you could run the risk of insulting a dealer by asking for a lower price. Don’t ever feel bad about paying full price for something that you really want. Do what you’re comfortable with.

Polychrome jasper
Most items at the Tucson Gem Show will not have price tags. They are sold by weight, usually in grams or kilograms. Loose, faceted gemstones are sold by carat weight.

Tip#4 Pricing at the Tucson Gem Show is like any other retail trade show. If you hear or see the word “keystone,” that is a retail term that basically means the price on the tag is the retail price, and the wholesale price is half of that amount. You may or may not get the piece for half of the price that is on the tag. That could depend on the show, the vendor, and whether you are a member of the trade.

Bumblebee jasper
Bumblebee jasper at the Tucson Gem Show

Tip#5 Carefully consider your purchases. If there is no written description of what an item is, if something just doesn’t look or feel right about it, or if a price seems too good to be true, then you might want to walk away. Even at a large industry invent like the Tucson gem show, there are dealers who aren’t completely honest about what they are selling. These dealers are few and far between, but it’s a good thing to keep in mind.    

Tip#6 If you see something that you that you really want and it’s at a great price, buy it. Don’t wait and then plan to come back to it, after you have “shopped around.”  The Tucson Gem Show is huge, and you may forget where you saw the piece, or worse yet, it may have already gone home with someone else by the time you get back to where you found it.

Carved Jade Sculpture
If you see something that you really want to buy at the Tucson Gem Show, don’t wait too long to make your decision. One-of-a-kind pieces like this detailed jade carving don’t last long, and you may forget where you saw your treasure.

Tip#7 If you are buying beads, you’re probably aware that they are sometimes tied together in bunches. When you find a strand or strands that you would like to purchase, please don’t pull them out of the bunch yourself. (That’s a rookie move!) Hold the selected strands in one hand with the rest of the bunch in the other hand, and then give them to the vendor. Even if there is a language barrier, they will understand what you’re wanting and will pull your strands out for you. This is professional courtesy, and your vendor will appreciate it.

Tip#8 Unless you are very skilled at using tweezers and have permission from the vendor, it is recommended that you avoid using tweezers when shopping for loose gemstones at the Tucson Gem Show. All situations are different, but it’s best to let the vendor offer you their tweezers, rather than pulling out your personal ones. Gems can be damaged by tweezers and even the best of us can accidentally squeeze too hard and send a gemstone flying. To be safe, use your fingers whenever possible. Bringing a loupe and small flashlight to check for inclusions is highly recommended.

Loose faceted gemstones
Loose, faceted gemstones for sale at the Tucson Gem Show

Tip#9 Have a general plan for meals and staying hydrated.  You may want to carry some snacks or a bottle of water with you. Most venues have dining areas or food trucks where you can get a quick meal and something to drink, but that isn’t always the case. Restaurants within a few miles of the shows are typically very crowded during peak times of the day.

Tip#10 (Probably the most important) HAVE FUN!  Attending the Tucson Gem Show is an amazing experience that never gets old.  You will most likely see things that you never even knew existed, and it could very well be a once in a lifetime trip. Enjoy the weather, soak up the amazing sunsets, and admire your new treasures at the end of every day. We are so blessed to have the opportunity to see such beautiful and fascinating things, and even more so when we can bring a few of them home with us.

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